Wes Craven's My Soul to Take opened on October 8 without the benefit of screening for the press. The few critics who bothered to drag themselves out to see it on Friday morning predictably savaged it. As of today it has 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, with only 3 out of 40 reviews weighing in as positive. Voters on IMDB have rated it 5.0 out of 10, which puts it near (but not quite) the bottom of Craven's filmography. Made with a budget of $25 million, and despite being shown in 3D, it has earned only $11 million in two weeks, as opposed to the $50 million Jackass 3D made in 1 week. Since horror depends heavily on the opening week, it's unlikely the film will ever break even, much less see a profit.
Most of the complaining is centered on one thing: the story. And I will be the first to argue that the story doesn't always work, and it certainly doesn't come to much at the end. It has something to do with the resurrected soul of a serial killer. Seven children were born sixteen years ago on the night the killer died, and now apparently some of the souls are able to live inside the bodies of at least two of the teens. The thing I couldn't figure out is that the hero, known as "Bug" (Max Thieriot, from Jumper and Chloe), seems to be channeling some of his friends, even while they're still alive! Does that mean they're walking around without souls? Who knows?
The truth is that I liked My Soul to Take, despite the silly plot. How is this possible? It's possible because plot is only one part of the entire makeup of a movie. It's a little irritating that 37 out of 40 film critics went in and focused entirely on that one portion of the production, as if they were reviewing a burrito and trashed the whole thing because the rice was undercooked. For example, no one pointed out that, despite the plot, the dialogue is pretty good, and there are some interesting character dynamics, especially the painful portrayal of single and foster parents in the movie. (Predictably, some critics complained that the characters are not realistic, which does not mean that they're bad. Some movies aren't meant to be realistic.) And most of the actors are quite good, especially Thieriot and the striking Emily Meade as Bug's sister. There's also a fascinating power play at work, with a long and complex hierarchy of characters that are in charge of others, with Bug practically at the bottom. Even the blind, African-American teen wields some kind of power on campus.
Most of all, I loved Craven's direction. If Craven has a good script, as in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), or Red Eye (2005), no one has a problem with him. But it remains that he is a highly skilled director, even with a bad script. He is suited to horror because he has a superb eye for three-dimensional space. In My Soul to Take, as well as in Red Eye and Scream, he makes amazing use of a regular house as a place where anything could be hiding, around any corner. He establishes the space and uses it, both onscreen and offscreen; it's always there, waiting, and this technique generates an enormous amount of suspense.
Likewise, Craven is a master of tone. Just consider this movie's wonderful autumn atmosphere. You can practically taste the crisp, cool air, especially given those creepy woods with all the bare, spidery tree branches. Then compare this to the warm, summery, sensual tone he captured in Hollywood for his last movie, Cursed (2005), which was equally, unjustly panned. Compare any two minutes of Craven to almost any other horror director working today, and his mastery and skill are clear. He has a genuine cinematic personality that comes through from film to film. Best of all, he never, ever shakes the camera!
Considering My Soul to Take and Cursed makes me think of one of my favorite directors, Mario Bava. The Italian-born Bava (1914-1980) inspired many of today's horror filmmakers and remains in their shadows, although -- 30 years after his death -- he seems slowly to be emerging and finding a following. Bava was one of the greatest directors in history in terms of creating tones and emotions with unique, unusual arrangements of shapes and colors in the frame. And yet he rarely, if ever, had a script that made sense. Most of his stories are slapdash, and yet he made something great out of them with his personal vision.
Michael J. Weldon, editor of the late, great Psychotronic magazine (and video guides), once wrote: "Bava's imaginative shockers were treated like cancer when shown in America's inner city theaters. Today similar but inferior films are treated as major, even respectable releases." I can't help but think that this applies to Craven as well, especially given that the inferior remakes of his films have performed better than the original. We have something of a national horror treasure, but we can't appreciate him because of silly things like bad hype, clunky 3D and wonky scripts. As with everything, I imagine he won't receive his due until long after he's gone. But eventually people will revisit My Soul to Take and find something to love about it.